In Greek mythology, the Titans were a family of powerful deities that were immortal and had incredible strength. In the NFL, the Titans are a mediocre AFC team during the 2013 season that doesn’t play like their namesake implies.
The Arizona Cardinals (8-5) head to Tennessee and look to slay the 5-8 Titans to keep their playoff hopes alive.
But how will the Cardinals do it? The Titans have scored at least 21 points in five of their six games since the team’s bye week. This is impressive given that they lost starting quarterback Jake Locker for the season in Week 10. Arizona brings a tough defense that will try to slow down the Tennessee offense and make life difficult for running back Chris Johnson.
Let’s take a look at the Arizona game plan for this Week 15 game.
Let Chris Johnson limit himself
The last time Arizona took on the Titans was in the 2009 season, and the Titans won that game 20-17. Johnson rushed for 154 yards including an 80-yard touchdown run. That was part of his magical year when he finished with 2,006 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. He had another 503 yards and two touchdowns from receptions that season, so he was a one-man wrecking crew on offense.
Now flash-forward to this season. Johnson has 820 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Johnson is having the worst season of his career, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. His career average is 4.6, and he has never finished with less than an average of 4.0 yards per rush.
So why is he struggling? Let’s take a look at a couple of plays from last week’s 51-28 blowout loss at Denver to see the answer.
The Titans have the ball at Denver's 3-yard line looking for another score to build on their lead. Johnson (white circle) takes the handoff from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and is looking straight ahead (triangle). The offensive linemen have their blocks, and Johnson has a nice seam to run between the red lines.
So what does he do? He gets a case of tunnel vision and takes the harder path (white dashed line) into the end zone. Yes, he scores on the play but the point here is that Johnson is missing lanes that he would have seen in 2009.
On the second play, Johnson takes another handoff. The two blockers (red lines) have their guys lined up. The linebacker is staring into the backfield (orange triangle) and Johnson has a decision to make. Which of the two directions (represented by the yellow lines) does he take?
After taking a quick stutter step, Johnson goes to the inside and winds up getting knocked down by the linebacker for no gain. He didn’t even look at the lane to the outside, which would have netted him at least five yards. And if the wide receiver holds his block, we’re looking at 15-20 yards if not more had Johnson taken that route.
Johnson is more of a straight-ahead runner on these plays—he tends to run up towards the line and try to juke to find an opening—and misses chances to take less punishment and make bigger gains. The Arizona defense will have to be aware of this and focus on crashing the middle of the defensive front.
Keep the passes short
Arizona has found a lot of success since the bye week with more of a dink-and-dunk offense that seems to suit Palmer. Palmer completed 27-of-32 passes last week against the St. Louis Rams and finished with 269 yards and a touchdown. He had issues last week with his elbow and didn’t practice a lot during the week. It didn’t matter.
Palmer was able to still efficiently feed the ball to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. He also worked in tight ends Rob Housler and Jim Dray and got the running backs involved in the passing game. The shorter passes has cut down Palmer’s interceptions as well. Before the bye week, he could be counted on for at least one interception per game. He has just three interceptions in his last five games, so he’s showing improvement.
In reviewing game tape, most of Palmer’s interceptions come on underthrown passes. By taking fewer shots downfield, Palmer has become an effective quarterback. This trend should continue this week against the Titans.
Bring the blitz and stop the tight end
Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Titans is not as mobile as Locker. If Arizona can bring pressure, it’s going to make for a long day for the Tennessee offense. Arizona defensive end John Abraham picked up three sacks last week against the Rams and might be able to do it again this week for an Arizona pass rush that has racked up 38 sacks this season.
As usual, limiting the tight end is a key part to winning. The Cardinals bottled up Jared Cook of the Rams and held him to 49 yards on three catches. Arizona will need to bottle up Tennessee's Delanie Walker to bolster its chances of winning.
The Cardinals have a good chance to topple the Titans and improve to 9-5 on the season if they follow this game plan. They need this win to set up two critical games with NFC West rivals to finish out the year: They visit the Seattle Seahawks next week and end the regular season with a home game against the San Francisco 49ers.